From Rolling Stones to Black Swamp fest, saxophonist Karl Denson is always ready to start a party

Karl Denson (Photo provided)


BG Independent News

Some nights saxophonist Karl Denson will play for 87,000 people. Another night he might play for 87.

Some nights his meaty, soulful sound is blowing in the spotlight with the Rolling Stones. Other nights he’s “getting away with murder” playing jazz tunes in a rock club.

On Saturday Sept. 8, at 8 p.m. Denson will present his amalgamation of funk and pop with a heart of jazz on the Main Stage of the Black Swamp Arts Festival.

“It’s interesting to see how I’m perceived,” he said. Playing 150 shows a year, “you change the sound from time to time.”

“Sometimes it’s more funk and sometimes gets a little jazzier,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “It’s a dance band. At the end of the day, whatever angle I’m taking, I really want people to be dancing and having fun.”

This is in the spirit of those jazz players who came before him. “It was a party when Louis Armstrong played,” or for that matter, he added, when hip hop DJs started spinning turntables and scratching records.

That’s the spirit he wants to bring to Bowling Green. Denson’s been playing for good times since he was a teen.

Growing up in southern California, he started on saxophone in seventh grade. It was just something to do, he said. By high school he was working in funk bands and Mexican wedding bands.

Denson went to Fullerton College with the intentions of being a veterinarian. In high school he’d worked in an animal clinic, including assisting in the operating room. But he found himself taking more music classes each semester, so he switched his major. He moved on to Cal State Long Beach.

At that time he aspired to be an avant garde jazz saxophonist inspired by the likes of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Cecil Taylor, and Anthony Braxton. This was a golden age of jazz with all its variety of styles, including early fusion, before it got smooth, he said.

“I feel fortunate to have live through that,” he said. “Now I’m definitely using that as a reference. … I’m a jazz guy at heart. My stuff is going to lean back into that improvised kind of music. … It hangs in that sixties, seventies vein.”

And younger players, notably fellow saxophonist Kamasi Washington, are also inspired by the styles of that time.

Denson had a record deal with a German label playing straight-ahead jazz. But in the early 1990s, he went on the road with rock guitarist Lenny Kravitz.

As much as he loved working with Kravitz and doing jazz on the side, Denson wanted to create something of his own. The emergence of acid jazz opened up that avenue for him. “I recognized all those samples,” he said. “This is what I’m supposed to be doing.”

The saxophonist hooked up with DJ Greyboy and cut some tracks that were hits on the dance circuit. That led to the formation of the Greyboy All Stars, an ensemble that lasted longer than its namesake’s participation in the group.

“That was the most fun thing ever,” Denson said of the All Stars. Here he was bringing the jazz vibe that first inspired him as a teenager into dance clubs.

When the All Stars had run its course, and members dispersed into other projects, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe was born, made of the same amalgamation of soulful, dance-ready grooves with the leader’s saxophone, flute and vocals leading the way.

His musical heroes, he said, are composers – Herbie Hancock, Horace Silver and Prince – who write strong songs that last.

“At the end of the day I’m really trying to create vehicles for improvisation,” Denson said. “That’s what keeps us grounded in jazz. We’ve always got to have space for improvisation.”

Denson has continued to contribute his sound to a variety of performers, including the Blind Boys of Alabama, the reggae act Slightly Stoopid, for whose label he’s recorded, and jazz stars Jack DeJohnette and Dave Holland.

In 2014, friend and former employer Kravitz was dining with Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones. The Stones’ touring band’s longtime saxophonist Bobby Keys was critically ill. “Lenny immediately threw my hat in the ring,” Denson said. “I was on the phone with Mick a few days later.”

Touring with the Stones is something altogether different. “It’s really just a spectacle. I don’t play that much, to be very honest, maybe for 20 minutes. Mainly it’s just an amazing thing to see that wave of people. … It’s incredible.”

How many people, though, doesn’t impact how Denson approaches a show. When he takes the stage in Bowling Green, he and his Tiny Universe will be ready to ignite a party.